• International Journal of Technology (IJTech)
  • Vol 13, No 6 (2022)

A Reconstruction Study on the 30-Wheeler Ceremonial Vehicle of Melaka Sultanate

A Reconstruction Study on the 30-Wheeler Ceremonial Vehicle of Melaka Sultanate

Title: A Reconstruction Study on the 30-Wheeler Ceremonial Vehicle of Melaka Sultanate
Fauzan Mustaffa, Mohamad Izani Zainal Abidin, Muhammed Fauzi Othman

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Cite this article as:
Mustaffa, F., Abidin, M.I.Z., Othman, M.F., 2022. A Reconstruction Study on the 30-Wheeler Ceremonial Vehicle of Melaka Sultanate. International Journal of Technology. Volume 13(6), pp. 1354-1368

Fauzan Mustaffa Faculty of Creative Multimedia, Multimedia University, 63100 Cyberjaya, Selangor, Malaysia
Mohamad Izani Zainal Abidin Faculty of Applied Media, Higher College of Technology, Po box 25026 Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Muhammed Fauzi Othman Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, 81310 Skudai, Johor, Malaysia
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A Reconstruction Study on the 30-Wheeler Ceremonial Vehicle of Melaka Sultanate

Portuguese historical sources mentioned the existence of a 30-wheeler ceremonial vehicle that belonged to the Sultan of Melaka embedded in the 1511 war narrative. This report  documented several measurements on the vehicle but was rarely analyzed academically. This project's fundamental goal was to reconstruct the arguably historical and extinct vehicle. It employed narrative analysis in dealing with textual clues involving components and measurements of the vehicle. Moreover, each component was carefully scrutinized as an integrated whole. Visual anthropological research was applied to cross-compare related historical visuals involving a Dutch Melaka sketch of a similar concept vehicle. It also investigates the route to where the vehicle was driven which has direct and indirect implications on its design.  Subsequently, design thinking was applied to pursue the design process to achieve the research’s reconstruction objective. The analysis and design process of the reconstruction consider the context in which the vehicle was used. According to the findings of this study, this Malay Sultanate ancient vehicle has a unique form and has complex mechanical design and maneuvering capability. Nevertheless, it is not comparable to the Malay royal vehicles that existed during the Dutch Melaka period. The study has limitations since it relies on English translation in dealing with ancient Portuguese texts. The long-term goal of this reconstruction study is to promote historical Melaka identity tourism, which is in line with SDGs 8.9 and 11.4.

30-wheeler ceremonial vehicles; 15th century Melaka sultanate; Melaka sultanate land vehicle; Melaka sultanate technology; Melaka sultanate


The fifteen-century kingdom of Melaka Sultanate harbor city is often regarded as the height of Malay Muslim civilization with its glorious achievements in administration, economic and physical construct (Mokhtar & Kosman, 2019). By nature, the native of Melaka Sultanate was well known to be a maritime society that centered its life on the water and demonstrated collective expertise in boat making and shipbuilding (Abdullah, 2015). Many scholars have extensively studied Melaka Sultanate’s marine structures and water vehicle technology.  

In the sixteen century, Tun Sri Lanang, an aristocrat of the Johor-Riau empire, inherited much of the Melaka Sultanate culture, splendor, and even the royal bloodline, tried to conserve a text regarded as literature from the Melaka Sultanate. The text was named Sullatus Salatin or the Malay Annals, recorded several animals, including elephants and horses, used as land vehicles, especially for royal customary code involving royal parades (Ahmad, 2010). However, the narrative did not mention the Sultan's innovation, which involved a man-made land ceremonial vehicle.

A wheeled land vehicle as part of the Melaka Sultanate royal customary inventory is a remarkable feat but is rarely discussed. A week before the 1511 war broke up, the wheeled vehicle was reported to have been used in a parade to celebrate the royal wedding couple of the king of Pahang and the princess of Melaka in a procession through the city (Birch, 2010).  A Portuguese general, Alfonso de Albuquerque’s reported his eyewitness account could offer us an authentic description of the land vehicle technology of the Melaka Sultanate. Seemingly impressed, Alfonso, in his report, decided to give a well-written description of what he saw in a manner that glorifies it. In a paragraph writing, Alfonso described the ceremonial vehicle as follows:

“Here was burnt a wooden house, of very large size and very well built with joiners’ work, about thirty palms breadth solid timber all inlaid with gold, built up on thirty wheels, every one of which was as large as hogshead, and it had s spire, which was the finishing-point of the building of great height, covered with silken flags and the whole of it hung with very rich silken stuffs, for it had been prepared for the reception of the king of Pao (Pahang) and his bride, the daughter of the king of Malacca, who were to make their entry through the city with great blowing trumpets and festivities” (Birch, 2010).

This detailed account by Alfonso clearly describes the components, dimensions, and nature of Melaka Sultanate's heritage's great vehicle. This allows a reconstruction study and a glimpse into the lost 15th-century ancient native Malay technology and civilization. This is aligned with a scholarly study that heritage constructs must be given priority in developing nation-building to ensure the survival of cultural heritage for future generations (Kayan et al., 2018). In addition, such reconstruction can facilitate activities that can enhance identity tourism experiences; as responses to expectations from tourists (Widaningrum et al., 2020). The reconstruction of the 30-wheeler ceremonial vehicles could contribute to different dynamics of digital heritage (relative to static heritage buildings) because it is a moving object full of royal customs. The emergence of innovative solutions in developing virtual tours to put cultures alive can improve virtual tours' design to optimize the tourism experience (Drianda et al., 2021).

It is interesting to see how ancient architectural discourse correlates with the underlying idea of humanity's attempt at the structural construct.  A renowned ancient Roman architect and engineer identified a well-designed architectural construct must exhibit three qualities; ‘firmitatis,’ ‘utilitatis’ and ‘venustatis’ that are stability, utility, and beauty, also known as Vitruvian virtues or the Vitruvian Triad (Vitruvius, 2009). According to him, the human construct is a reflection of imitation of nature, the same it is with birds and bees building their nests (Vitruvius, 2009). Similarly, the earliest Malay builders understood how to make a comfortable dwelling that fulfills its purpose as a location in response to nature (Bahauddin & Abdullah, 2008). Some of the traditional Malay architecture directly took inspiration from natural metaphorical forms like ‘bumbung gajah menyusu’ or ‘the suckling elephant roof’ and ‘kayu belalang bersagi’ ‘grasshopper form or octagonal timber logs’; this is not to mention natural wood carving motif which connects directly to the quality of ‘venustatis’ (beauty).

Vitruvius’s principles on machines were seemingly influenced by commerce activities, such as the engineering idea of the articulation of mechanical elements like hoists, cranes, and pulleys, as well as war machines such as ballistae, catapults, and siege engines (Vitruvius, 2009) which brings back to the qualities of ‘firmitatis’ (stability), utilitatis (utility). One may deeply ponder when reading Alfonso’s description of the 1511 war narrative that “…the king of Malaca came up mounted upon an elephant…with wooden castles containing many war-like engine…” (Birch, 2010). In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci seemed to revitalize the discourse of Vitruvius in his glorification of the Vitruvian Man inscribed in the circle and the square, which reflect the fundamental human-architectural proportion. Little is known if traces of a shared European Renaissance period discourse responded to by the Malay world reflected on such an unprecedented innovation of a 30-wheeler ceremonial vehicle.

This architectural artistry seems to relate well with the argument that the material world constantly converses with humanity through its resistance, ambiguity, and tendency to change in response to external circumstances (Sennett, 2008). The enlightened can engage in this conversation and develop an "intelligent hand." Instead of following the "common foundation of talents," people frequently exaggerate "small disparities in degree into vast distinctions in kind" to legitimize their elite institutions (Sennett, 2008).

Experimental Methods

    This study used a qualitative approach and engaged in investigative research, techniques, and methods to unearth hidden or obscure information that helps develop a more comprehensive picture of a historical object under investigation (Layder, 2018). In other words, the historical record is the basis for this study's understanding (Layder, 2018). This encouraged the researcher to look at and undertake data collection on accounts primarily from Portuguese, supported by Malay, Dutch, and the Middle East documents. Thus, this research was molded by the nature and character of document analysis, where documents were given voice and interpreted, and meaning was put into perspective to build an understanding around and on the targeted historical object. Figure 1 depicts the relationship between overall data collection and data analysis techniques for the project.

Figure 1 Overall Data Collection and Data Analysis Strategy for the Study

     The narrative analysis framework (Czarniawska, 2004) was used in this research to investigate, choose, examine, and analyze descriptive clues that could shed light on the subject at hand. The study began with identifying the vehicle, followed by a part-by-part focus analysis of Alfonso’s paragraph-long description. This study pays attention to and relies on the credibility of sources and information pertinent to the vehicle's form, components, and measures. Wherever necessary, this research puts each description into context by employing other related supporting documents, be it textual or visual, to comprehensively reveal an idea of the vehicle.

      In the study, a visual anthropological analysis framework (Collier, 2004) was also used to cross-compare and precede related archived visuals involving a Dutch Melaka period sketch on a seemingly similar royal vehicle. This section also brings into the discussion selected ancient Melaka municipal plans to explore the possible route the vehicle traveled that best fit the description. The character of the route was investigated as it provides more clues impacting the design of the ceremonial vehicle.
    Finally, the design-thinking framework (Ambrose & Harris, 2010) was utilized to study design processes to achieve the research’s reconstruction objective. The analysis and design process of reconstruction also pays attention to the context of how the vehicle was put to work. This study built the case of the reconstruction part by part and discussed as an integrated whole until an interpretative 3-dimensional impression of the ceremonial vehicle is built. This includes the basic mechanical look of the vehicle.

Results and Discussion

Findings from Narrative Analysis

      Even though ‘The Commentaries of the great Afonso de' Albuquerque was written by his son, Brás de Albuquerque, the book was produced based on his father’s diary and copies of letters to the king of Portugal (Earle & Villiers, 1990). The strength of Alfonso’s sources lies in the fact that he was literally present in Melaka, witnessing firsthand the Melaka Sultanate’s state of affairs while still in operation. Alfonso arrived at Melaka harbor on the 1st of July 1511 (Loureiro, 2008), and the Melaka Sultanate- Portuguese war broke up on the 25th of July 1511 (Earle & Villiers, 1990). Within this period, there were peace negotiations between the two parties (Correia, 2012), while Alfonso himself was exposed and witnessed Melaka’s daily life for about 24 days. Alfonso himself may not have stepped his foot on Melaka soil, but at that time, Melaka’s shoreline was close to the city's main streets. Alfonso witnessed the 30-wheeler ceremonial vehicles  utilized in a royal parade. Based on the 1511 war narrative, this ceremonial vehicle was burned in the royal compound (Birch, 2010). However, before the war, the ceremonial vehicle participated in a royal parade in the city (of Upeh) during a royal wedding reception. According to this description, the vehicle would have to cross the city’s main bridge and travel along the primary streets of Upeh (the main vicinity a cross Melaka river) before returning to the royal compound.   

       Alfonso described that the ceremonial vehicle was mainly made of wood. Hence, in addition to its basic construction, this design would include wooden accessories and embellishments. It's noteworthy how Alfonso refers to the vehicle as a ‘house’ and describes it as being a ‘very large size’ at about “thirty palms in breadth or seven and a half feet in width.” We view this as the ‘X’ factor, which has a discerning influence that makes the vehicle looks ‘very large’ despite its basic size; so to speak, a space comparable to the size of a small ‘room’ but with the look of a ‘house.’ However, the length of this vehicle was not disclosed.

       According to the text, the vehicle's architectural artistry was marvelously superb. Because it was made of solid wood, the structure was relatively weighty. To be pulled in a parade through the city, a vehicle of this weight will almost certainly demand considerable energy. More clues related to the route taken based on the description provides important context benefiting this study and will be discussed in the visual anthropological section of this paper. By the look, it appears that this ceremonial vehicle appeared beautifully ornamented with wood carving designs  “…inlaid with gold”.

        Another impressive aspect of this ceremonial vehicle is that it was built upon thirty wheels; Alfonso uses ‘hogshead’ as a reference to describe the size of each wheel; a size which the 15th-century English term 'hoggers hede’ referred to as a unit of measurement equivalent to 63 gallons barrel (Difford, n.d.); in a context which generic western’s standard size of hogshead is thirty inches in diameter (Hogshead, n.d.).

        Based on the description, the vehicle has complete roofing as a tall tapering spire. However, this study considers that the vehicle's floor dimension significantly influences its overall form, a sub-case that will be examined during the design process. Based on Alfonso’s expression, the spire of the vehicle was significantly tall, although no estimated measure was given on its height. On the other hand, this vehicle must cross the Sultanate gate (in Malay called ‘gerbang’), which typically has a top enclosure. As such, a practical measure of the height of the spire will be discussed.

        This vehicle was described as being ‘covered’ with silken fabric. It was also mentioned that the silken fabric was particularly flagged. This study suggests that they would be no other than the Melaka flags themselves. Based on the text, those flags were positioned at two places: i) at the tapering spire and ii) at the vehicle's body. The use of the words ‘flags’, could indicate that more than one flag was installed at its spire. All body façades in between the pillars of the vehicle would also be covered with silken flags and perhaps can be unfolded like curtains. This is following the description that “…the whole of it hung with very rich silken stuff”. However, there is no reference to what symbol and color were used on the Melaka Sultanate flag available in the public domain.

        By the description, the march in which the vehicle participated was ceremonial. The royal bride and groom whom the vehicle carries were celebrated and paraded through the city accompanied by full royal customaries, which included the “…great blowing trumpets and festivities”. The study views this occasion as a shared culture between the Melaka ruler and the cosmopolitan societies of the Melaka Sultanate. This apparently suggests that the royal possession involving the 30-wheeler vehicles is not a one-off occasion but happened numerous times.

        A medieval Muslim traveler, Ibn Battuta, who visited Melaka in 1345 (Gibb, 2005), mentioned elephants were commonly used to carry loads during the Melaka Sultanate era. He also described Melaka fortress city (royal compound) at that time were constructed of hewn stone with a gate wide enough for three elephants to walk through.  This study sees that the use of elephants was the reason why the gate of the Melaka Sultanate fortress was apparently wide. The size of the gate limits the design of the ceremonial vehicle. On the other hand, the Malay Annals (Ahmad, 2010) mentioned that the royal compound has seven gates from the main entrance to the Sultan’s palace, beside consistent with the use of elephants involving the royal parade.


4.    Findings from Visual Anthropological Analysis

        Figure 1 depicts a royal parade on a 30-wheeler ceremonial vehicle during the Dutch period. Figure 1 is a redrawn from an engraved artwork originally inscribed ‘Carosese Royal de trente roues tire par douze Elephans’ (meaning “The Thirty-wheeler Royal Carriage pulled by twelve Elephants’) by Pierre van der Aa in the early 1700s (Moore, 2004). Obviously, this ceremonial vehicle is by far too huge in comparison to the one described by Alfonso. Based on the sketch, the 30 wheels were distributed in at least four rows. Its wheels are relatively comparable to the size of a hogshead.

Figure 2 A redrawn of thirty-wheeler royal ceremonial vehicle during Dutch Melaka (the Early 1700s)(Source: Moore (2004), p23)

        The tower on top of the main structure does not match the expression of a tall tapering spire. There is no indication of the fabrics covering the structure are flagged. It is almost impossible that a vehicle this large can pass through a bridge. It is unclear why a Malay royal ceremonial vehicle rooted in Melaka Sultanate tradition was not built in its original form and dimensions during the Dutch Melaka period. This is especially appearing in the depiction of the vehicle attempting to equal the Melaka Sultanate royal vehicle in the context of its 30 wheels. However, it is important to note that the above ceremonial vehicle and the one from Melaka Sultanate are from different eras separated by nearly 200 hundred years. Another aspect that this study can learn from the sketch is that such a vehicle would justifiably be pulled by elephants.  

        Visualizing the route of the 30-wheeler ceremonial vehicles based on Alfonso’s narrative is not something inconceivable, even though there is no municipal plan for the city of Upeh in reference to the Sultanate era. The above municipal plans (figure 3(a), (b), (c), and (d)) are brought into the study to trace the route taken by the ceremonial vehicle through the city. In general, the municipality of Melaka during the Sultanate era can be divided into two parts: i) the royal compound and ii) the cosmopolitan city of Upeh.  The vehicle departed from the royal compound and paraded throughout the city of Upeh before returning to the palace.  The city of Upeh, also known as the cosmopolitan city or the emporium of the Melaka Sultanate, was segregated into territorial settlements of traders based on local and foreign ethnic groups led by designated Syahbandars or harbourmasters from each ethnicity. Portuguese appears to have retained the main structural municipality traced down to Melaka Sultanate tradition.